The day: 5 December 2009, Lunch.
The place: Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA
The venue: Apsleys-A Heinz Beck Restaurant, The Lanesborough
The food: Modern Italian
The drinks: Luxury list but also by the glass and more easy-going options.
(Added January 2010: Apsleys has been awarded its first Michelin star)
One day after the very impressive Hibiscus, we set off again from our humble base in gritty East London towards the bright lights of Central London. We honestly weren’t expecting this Heinz Beck venue, for all the chef’s fame and his 3* at ‘home’ in Rome, to top our lunch at Hibiscus.
Little did we know we were in for a truly stellar lunch, in an elegant, comfortable, spacious, light-filled, no-expenses-spared, room.
An unpromising start with the waiter frantically trying to read the label, unable to tell us clearly where the two olive oils on offer come from (Imola, Florence…uhm). But from then on it will be a steep and endless rise to the sky.
The bread is – of course- home-made, coming in several varieties, including cereal and olives. Very tasty, and well made, touching both the bodily and the ethereal. The latter, a most refined version of Sardinian pane ‘carasau’, much thinner than the standard one, probably obtained by brushing a ‘batter’ on the baking sheet (very similar to what we had another very fine restaurant). This bread deserves a photo.
The amuse bouche takes us by storm.
A ‘pannacotta’ with olive tapenade and tomato concasse’, veal terrine with mustard seeds and candied Kumquat. Soft flavours, temperatures and textures, yet vibrant and fresh. The cheesy pannacotta plays well indeed with the two flavours. Great. (we wonder: where does he get tomatoes in December?).
Mellowed down by the food and the relentlessly charming waiter, we are all salivating expectations. He tempts us with a white truffle put under our nose (mercifully he does not say ‘from Alba’) but, even though inebriated by the noble smell, that lingers on well after he has taken the precious treasure away, we opt not to go bankrupt.
The primi establish beyond doubt that pasta can be pure fine dining. There were the celebrated ‘fagottelli carbonara’ (more on this story later).
And there was an unbelievable rabbit reduction in
Ravioli of rabbit and pistachio
That reduction, so intense but not heavy; the ravioli, well filled and simply wonderful, among the best we’ve ever eaten. Just wanting to be picky, the pistachio plays, surprisingly, a bit second fiddle here – we were expecting some crunchy textures and a more definite appearance in the form of flavour.
Will a lamb have been slaughtered and a pigeon shot for a good cause?
Yes, yes, yes!
The movingly tender, moist, flavoursome lamb is enclosed in a crepe (egg and cheese) and spinach leaves. The warm provola cheese layered over aubergines adds power and a subtly bitter note, and the finely finely chopped peppers with the courgettes green are sweetly delicious. A stunning, boldly flavoured, beautiful looking dish rooted in tradition and taken much higher. (we wonder: where does he get the pepper and aubergines in December?).
Once again, this pigeon’s cooking deserves the adjective ‘perfect’ (the breast poached and the leg slow-roasted).Very far reaching flavours all round, multidimensional, with an unadvertised rhubarb compote sublimely acidic and an added foie gras a seductive smooth, rich match for the gamey, earthy meat. And the succulent pearl onions, and the mustard seed sauce. What balance. What power.
We share one dessert. We’re glad about this decision as the specimen turns out to be a giant one:
Ricotta cannoli, cassata and Sharon fruit sorbet
Sicily reigns in this dish, the ricotta from stratosphere and encapsulated in the classiest of crispy cannoli, the pistachios now screaming flavour and texture, and we actually wanted to scream (of pleasure) after tasting an added glass of almond milk. The sorbet is not sweet which, in a dessert with plenty of sugar, makes for the right balance.
The petit four accompanying our (excellent) coffees spans an impressive range in terms of flavours, textures and recapitulate several regional Italian traditions: gianduiotto, pistachio and almond meringue with berry compote, ricciarelli, raspberry sugar, brownie. Simply excellent.
Friendly, polite, attentive, unintrusive. We just wonder, miserable picky sods that we are, why in a restaurant of this class and obvious ambitions, they do not iron the tablecloths.
We could not believe it. We could not believe that this famous signature dish was as good as it was. This is genious. The carbonara eggs springing in your mouth when you bite into the entire fagottello picked up rigorously with your spoon, the absolute balance, the perfect seasoning, the rustic, often heavy tradition brought to unprecedented heights and delicacy, the vivid colours (that courgette green again): this dish has it all. It moved us and it will remain in our tasting memories. (we wonder: where does he get courgettes in December?).
There’s a 3 course lunch menu at £45 including a starter version of the fagottelli. We went a la carte with two starters, two mains, a shared dessert, water, coffees and just a glass of wine and paid £145 (including the usual 12.5% discretionary service charge). A fuller a la carte meal with a basic wine will set you back around £200 for two, which, in truth, is fair for such cuisine (we must remark the generous portions, too). Tasting menus at £65 and £85.
Heinz Beck is a genius and this London enterprise of his does not fail to communicate it through executive chef Massimiliano Blasone and the rest of the team. This cuisine attains the clearest and most potent flavours and is never heavy, never unbalanced, never showy or egotistic. We are glad that London has such a true superstar, heavy calibre Italian cuisine restaurant.